Complex social and political conflicts invariably have multiple roots rather than a single clear cause, and they are therefore difficult to manage effectively. Conflicts are about the interpretations of opponents' motives as well as the interests that antagonists pursue. Conflict management is most effective when it addresses not only the specific objects of contention but also adversaries' deeper, emotion-laden fears.
Drawing on research and ideas delineated in his companion book, The Culture of Conflict, Marc Howard Ross offers a cross-cultural approach to conflict management. He identifies key features of constructive conflict management societies and evaluates three strategies of conflict management—self help, joint problem-solving, and third-party decision making—showing how each succeeds or fails in dealing with both disputants' interests and interpretations as causes of conflict. Exploring a wide variety of conflict management successes and failures—including the confrontation between MOVE and the city of Philadelphia, a public housing dispute in New York City, the return to warfare in post-colonial highland New Guinea, persistent hostility in Northern Ireland, and the Camp David Accords—Ross explains that how disputants' interests and interpretations are addressed affects the course of each dispute, its intensity, and the degree to which the dispute results in a constructive outcome. He offers the hypothesis that in bitter disputes modifying opponents' interpretations is a prerequisite for bridging differences in interests, stresses the need for models of successful conflict management, and suggests ways to expand constructive conflict management.